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'God wants us to create': How a Latter-day Saint ended up as an animator for major films

In this week's episode of This Is the Gospel, Adam thinks he has the safe path for a career as a mechanical engineer planned out—until he discovers digital design. With a lot of work, prayer, and time spent shimmying into a locked computer lab at night, Adam finds not only his dream job but what it means to be a creator. 

An adapted excerpt from the story is below. Listen to the full episode here or read the full transcript here. Note: This excerpt has been edited for clarity.

In 1999, I had the pivotal moment in my life where I had to decide what classes I was going to take fall semester. And so I was sitting there, looking through a newsprint catalog of classes, trying to decide what major I would [choose] when I returned to BYU and therefore determined the course of my entire life and career. 

And so as I dialed up on the touch-tone phone, I looked over the classes and I said, "Hmm, this one's interesting, something called 'industrial design.'" But I chose the safe route. I was going to be an engineer. And so I signed up for all those classes. And at the end of the summer, when I returned to BYU two weeks after my mission, I started in the mechanical engineering program. 

It was a safe bet. That's what good members of the Church did, like they had safe and sensible careers. And that seemed like what I was supposed to do. 

So in that first week back at BYU, I was fresh home from my mission. The sky was the limit. And I had a bit of a moment where I took the time to explore some options. And [when] I looked into this industrial design major, I thought, "Okay, let me just check this out." And I went through the classes and went through a tour. 

And there were three divisions in the industrial design major. There was automotive design, which I thought was really cool—I always used to draw cars. Product design, where you design shoes and toasters and things. And then I found this strange little division that was so obscure and didn't quite fit, which was called digital design. 

And I was told that there was a computer lab going on with one of the professors teaching. His name was Brent Adams. And he had started this portion of industrial design called digital design. And I walked in and I saw him using a software package called Maya and he was rotating a sphere up on the big screen. And I thought, "This is it. This is what I want to do for a living. And this is your chance, Adam Sidwell, to make velociraptors and dinosaurs for a living." 

I signed up for the major. I got so excited about this. This was what I wanted to do. And I left engineering behind and I didn't look back for one second. 

There were no teachers besides Brent Adams, so what that meant is that we took a lot of illustration classes, and then we'd have this one big long class that was about three to four hours, three times a week, where we would sit in the class and just learn hands on how to use this software and how to dive into animation. And it was hard, especially in a world where the internet had hardly any content on it. 

And, you know, I was the best artist in high school. My art teachers loved me. But for the first time in my life, I was with artists who were way more talented than I was. And I would put my work up against theirs, and it just paled in comparison. And [I] had my art looked at and somebody would say, "This isn't good. This is the problem here, here, and here."

And I had many, many moments of doubt of if this was something I could do. And I just wasn't sure if I was learning enough. Because we never had known anyone who had actually graduated from BYU and gotten a job working in the movie industry. The chances of making it in a creative career are really, really slim in a lot of those careers because you're up against a lot of competition, and some of it is just pure luck. 

There was a lot of prayer involved, there was a lot of soul searching, and usually not about "if," but "how." And my antidote to the discouragement and to the feelings of "Wow, this is really hard," my antidote to that and my answer was, more work. Work harder.

And I remember spending five-hour chunks of time in the laboratory. And in the Snell building at BYU [I] was locked away in a room without windows—a computer lab. And they would close the doors to the Snell building at 10:00 p.m. at night. But that was—for us [digital design majors]—the time when we were just getting started, after having already done our other schoolwork and having already had a computer lab session earlier that day. 

And so sometimes, if we had forgotten, or we hadn't made it in time to the doors being closed, there was a second-story window, that if you climbed up a pillar, and someone gave you a boost, you could heave yourself onto a ledge and shimmy through a window—that was just about as wide as I was—into another computer lab classroom. 

Which, funnily enough, was often occupied at 10:00 p.m., and then suddenly, a couple of animation majors would come plopping through a second story window, much to the surprise of the professor or students who were then engaged in the class. And we'd walk through nonchalantly waving, "Hello," and moving over to our computer lab so that we could get more work done. 

It was nights like that where I often found myself emerging as the sun was coming up, having worked all night, and walking back home to catch a few hours of sleep—or a few minutes of sleep—before my next day of classes started. 

There's something remarkable about having an idea, that goes something like this: "Wouldn't it be amazing if . . . ?" and then you go through a process of sketching it, then modeling it and putting it into computer software, and rendering it until you have something that you can put up on your screen, and you can look at and go, "Whoa." 

And as I dove further and further into computer graphics and animation, and I learned the math and the physics—I got this feeling that we were trying to recreate on screen the process of creation. 

We have to study and understand that there is math and equations behind how water flows. We have to understand, you know, how the anatomy of a human being helps us to move the way that we do. We have to examine the physics and the math behind how light bounces off of surfaces and reacts such that the colors come to our eye and we see things like glass and water. And we get a little glimpse into how God created the world. 

And I think God wants us to create because that is the divine mission [for] all of us. We create life. We are destined to become like Him and be co-creators and heirs to all the He has, and to create worlds to come. 

And so I didn't know how everything would turn out. But I hoped. And even if I didn't find success in what [I was] doing, there was joy in the creation, and the building of a skill that I knew I could take with me into the next life. 

And so [there I was] in year five at BYU. Most of my friends from high school had long since graduated and started their careers. And I was starting to become what felt like to the outside world an old guy in college, as were many of the other animation majors with me. 

And I came home one day to find that there was something written on the whiteboard by one of my roommates in the living room, and it said, "Pixar called," with a return phone number. And I thought this must be the biggest joke that they were playing on me.

For more of Adam's story, listen to or read the full This Is The Gospel episode here

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